Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
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With Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, James Cameron hands off his Terminator franchise to director Jonathan Mostow who previously scored with Breakdown and U-571. Cameron takes no credit here. Not even as a producer (and they could've hidden a water buffalo in the production credits, with no less than 10 people serving as producers and executive producers). Executive producer Gale Anne Hurd is the strongest tie here to Cameron's past successes. She co-wrote The Terminator and served as producer on The Abyss, Aliens, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But other than Hurd and Stan Winston (who provided special effects in both The Terminator and T2), this is a largely new group of talent behind the cameras.

Not surprisingly the results are somewhat mixed. Director Mostow shows a remarkable talent for crafting action sequences that carry the velocity of a runaway high-speed locomotive. The movie is composed of one chase scene after another and Mostow builds each scene carefully. He knows how to pace the sequences so that the characters aren't completely buried (and with the avalanche of broken glass, crushed concrete, and twisted metal this is no small task). But this has to be the stupidest Terminator movie yet. Logic is completely thrown out the window. Screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris have concocted little rationale to explain what happens. For example, a new cyborg named T-X is now pursuing John Connor and her preferred method of transportation seems to be the biggest vehicle that she can find. In order to chase down Connor, who's driving a four-wheel drive SUV, she grabs a multi-ton wrecker equipped with a huge crane. The script says she must catch Connor, so in only a matter of seconds, she eliminates his substantial head start and bashes into the back of his escape vehicle. Never mind how she even knew which direction he went. T3 is filled with one implausible development after the next. It's to Mostow's credit that he can nonetheless still manage to make this mess of a story engaging.

Part of the problem with the Terminator franchise is its familiarity. Even back when the first Terminator movie appeared in 1980 it could hardly have been considered an original concept. Man vs. machine stories are as old as science-fiction. Rather it was the magnificent sense of momentum conveyed through Cameron's direction that made the movie succeed in spite of its familiarity. In T2, Cameron built on the mythos by adding a new, unstoppable cyborg creation and a nice plot twist that made the Terminator into the hero instead of the enemy. T2 also made steps toward giving Schwarzenegger's T-101 cyborg a soul. T3 plunges into much of this same terrain, but now the franchise threatens to overstay its welcome. There just aren't that many new ideas. Oh, now the new indestructible cyborg looks like a woman. So she gets to show up naked and walk around au natural for a few minutes before finding suitable clothing and a method of transporation. Yes, that's the screenwriters' idea of a new development.

T3 moves with an astounding supply of momentum, but the story that should be feeding this momentum has become insubstantial and worn. Any energy that results in the filmmaking is purely the result of masterful cinematography and editing. However, without a substantial backing drama and without fresh mythos building, the filmmaking rings hollow. T3 becomes just another well-mounted but empty-headed showcase of special effects and machine-gun-paced action sequences.

Edward Furlong, who originally played John Connor in T2, was signed to reprise his role; however, early in the filming process he was replaced with Nick Stahl, an emerging star who had previously scored big opposite Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson in the emotional drama In the Bedroom. Stahl brings a different level of intensity to the role (he's less brooding than Furlong), but he serves as an attractive lead actor. Connor is living "off the grid." He works menial jobs where he can get by without a social security card or anything else that might be used to trace his presence. He lives the life of a hobo, hitchhiking around the country for fear the robots might one day discover his location and come calling again, as in T2.

Stahl is paired with Claire Danes, who is also new to the franchise. She plays a veterinarian named Kate Brewster who is pulled into the time-tripping plot when Connor breaks into her clinic to steal drugs. Soon the Terminator comes calling, and hot on his heels arrives T-X, Skynet's most sophisticated cyborg killingmachine. As in T2, the Terminator's mission is to protect John Connor. Meanwhile T-X has her sights set on eliminating anyone destined to become part of the resistance movement that will fight against the robots in the post-nuclear-war landscape.

The script provides a few nice jabs at the Schwarzenegger persona. It has been several years now since Schwarzenegger has starred in a major blockbuster. So he has begun to look like something of an anachronism. In a parallel development in T3, the cyborg he portrays is clearly out of date. When Connor asks him if he can shut down T-X, he says it's highly unlikely: "I am an obsolete design." It's fun to see Schwarzenegger allowing this light criticism of his persona. Meanwhile Kristanna Loken, in a relatively bland performance, pales in comparison to Robert Patrick's wonderfully menacing performance in T2. Just like Patrick's T-1000 cyborg, she keeps getting crushed and burnt and riddled with machine gun fire, and predictably she keeps coming back for more. However, the shock of seeing the cyborg reconstitute itself and rise to its feet after certain destruction has grown wearisome through pure repetition. How many times can filmmakers serve us the same scenes and expect that we'll still be surprised or shocked?

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is frequently fun to watch, but it's also irritating because the script provides so little new material. And it's frustrating that the filmmakers really expect us to buy into the outrageous logic gaps. There are moments in this movie that will suck your jaw to the floor, not in wonder, but in disbelief at the idiocy on display. (In one scene, we're supposed to believe that Connor, Brewster, and the Terminator, who's toting a machine gun, can walk right into a high-security military installation and proceed to the most secure area -- without even being questioned once!) Maybe it's time to retire this franchise.

[rating: 2.5 of 4 stars]

Studio Web site: Warner Bros.
Movie Web site: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines



Photo credits: © 2003 Warner Bros. All rights reserved.